Lexus RX 450h review: Different but flawed
It would seem that Lexus’ parent company, Toyota, has an advantage over its rivals. It’s spent years refining hybrid drivetrains and, as a result, should know exactly what to do with a battery. With so much focus on the evils of diesel of late and consumers looking for a fuel-efficient alternative, Toyota and Lexus have never been better placed.
That’s especially the case in the luxury SUV market, where cars such as the Audi Q7, Volvo XC90 and Range Rover Sport dominate. Although these rivals also now offer models with hybrid engines, Lexus has been at it for longer.
And, yet, the Lexus RX 450h misses the mark. Not because it’s unpleasant to drive, nor because it’s any more or less impractical, or less luxurious than the competition. It’s because it feels as if Lexus hasn’t capitalised on the head start Toyota’s hybrid technology has given it.
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Lexus RX 450h review: Interior, tech and driver assistance
The problems start, and end, with the Lexus RX 450h’s physical user interface. Not the steering wheel or driving position – those are absolutely fine. In fact, the electrically powered adjustments to both seats and steering wheel in the car I drove ensure it’s easier than most cars to get super comfortable.
Nor do I take issue with the steering-wheel controls, the optional heads-up display (HUD) or the general layout, although the RX, like many modern cars, is a bit too much of a button fest. Not including those on the steering column stalks, I counted a grand total of 85 buttons in the front cabin of the RX 450h. If you happen to be a church organist, you’re going to feel right at home. Anyone else might take a while to feel at home.
No, it’s the controls for the – otherwise quite capable – in-car navigation and media system that bother me. No, that’s too mild. In the week I had the car, they made me do all those things that inexplicably badly designed things make you do: yell in frustration, gnash my teeth, huff in despair, roll my eyes and sigh at the world. I would have pulled out my hair, too, if there weren’t so little of it left.
The source of all this angst? A small, inconsequential thing. A flat, square joystick set into the centre console that you push up, down, left or right to navigate the various menus and click to select options in the huge, 12.3in non-touch-sensitive display set into the dashboard above. Standard models get a smaller, 8in display.[gallery:13]
It doesn’t look bad and, indeed, it ought not to be bad. After all, controls like this are everywhere in modern electronics, from games consoles to TVs, monitors and cameras.
This one, though, is an unmitigated disaster. The problem is that it’s too easy to shoot past the option you’re aiming for, instead jumping to the bottom of the list or the corner of the screen. You have to concentrate so hard on selecting the icon or menu item you want that I wouldn’t recommend using it on the move at all; it’s simply far too distracting.
It’s not as if there’s any way around it, either. The built-in voice control was woeful at recognising street names and addresses when I spoke them, and there’s no support for either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which at least would have delivered superior voice recognition.[gallery:19]
Driver assistance isn’t quite as infuriating but it does lack key features, certainly compared with the very best luxury SUVs on the road. So, as with the Toyota C-HR, you get adaptive cruise control, traffic-sign recognition, lane-departure alerts and steering assistance, which will drag you back into lane when it senses you’re drifting – all through the “Lexus Safety System+” option. This all works pretty well.
But there’s no option to add full-time steering assist, the likes of which have been available on the Volvo XC90 through its Pilot Assist feature for a few years now and are now beginning to become available on even lower-end vehicles like the Nissan Qashqai.
You do, at least, get a HUD that displays speed limits (via street-sign recognition), satnav directions and cruise-control settings on the windscreen in front of you – it’s one of the largest available on any car, according to Lexus, but is a pricey extra, at nearly £1,000 on top.[gallery:10]
Lexus RX 450h review: Audio and cabin build quality
Another £1,000 extra is the Mark Levinson audio system included in my test car. Consisting of a bewildering 15 speakers scattered throughout the cabin, the power and authority that this in-car audio setup is capable of has to be heard to be believed.
It’s gutsy, incredibly powerful and, when you crank it right up, there’s nary a hint of distortion or cabin buzz.[gallery:14]
It’s not the most subtle sound system I’ve listened to in a car, but it’s still hugely impressive. If you’re already spending more than £50,000 on your car, I’d say you’d be silly not to add it.
And as well as sounding spiffing, the name adds a sense of exclusivity to an interior that is already solidly built. This may not be the most sharply styled interior, with the analogue clock in the centre of the dashboard sitting somewhat awkwardly alongside the display above it, but there is a serene sense of comfort here and the build quality throughout the cabin is impeccable.
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Lexus RX 450h review: Drive and handling
Unusually for this type of car, the Lexus RX 450h is only available with one engine, and it’s a hybrid; the 2-litre petrol engine was discontinued in late 2017. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Its 3.5-litre V6 hybrid unit puts out 308hp, whisks the RX 450h’s bulk from 0-60mph in 7.7 seconds, and means the large SUV can move pretty fast when you need it to. Yet it’s pretty darned comfortable at the same time.[gallery:9]
There’s a fair degree of body roll here, as you’d expect in such a large car, but it never gets too out of shape. The adaptive suspension – included as standard in the F-Sport model I drove – floats like a magic carpet over bumps and even quite severe potholes.
As for economy, that’s pretty healthy for such a beefy SUV, too, with up to 54.3mpg on the base model and 51.4mpg on trim levels above SE.
Lexus RX 450h review: Verdict
The Lexus RX 450h is a peculiar mix of the very good and the plain bad. On the one hand, it’s super comfortable and its looks, though divisive, offer something different compared with the more conservatively styled competition. It’s reasonably quick and quite efficient for such a big car, too, plus you’re getting quite a bit for your money inside.
But Lexus, to put it mildly, appears to have quite a long way to go when it comes to driver assistance and infotainment tech, with features and, perhaps more critically, usability lagging a long way behind key rivals in the luxury SUV space.